There has been a church building in Pontefract Market Place since at least the 12th Century, when a chapel-of-ease, St. Mary’s in the Market Place, was built by the Norman baronial de Lacy family and used by the monks of St Johns Priory, Pontefract. The original building was enlarged over the centuries and the name changed to St. Giles.
Until the late 18th Century the Parish Church of Pontefract was All Saints Church, which was destroyed during Civil War sieges of the Castle; St. Giles becoming the town’s church. In 1789 St. Giles became the Parish Church of Pontefract by Act of Parliament.
As its congregations grew, the church was subjected to a number of alterations and additions as evidenced by the various styles that exist today. About 1350 the North Arcade was constructed and 200 years later the Chantry Chapel (at the east end) was incorporated into the main body of the church having previously been physically separated from the present Chancel.
In 1649, after the Civil War, the interior was adapted for worship in accordance with Puritan ideas including the provision of 5’ high partitions separating “box-pews” and other alterations aimed at transferring the previous Gothic Church into a preaching hall focused on the pulpit rather than on the High Altar.
Again, to meet the need for increased congregations, the gallery in the west end was built in 1740 (commemorated by the painting of the coat of arms of George II which is still to be seen on the west wall) and at the same time a gallery was constructed over the North aisle. In 1770 the south wall was removed and a south aisle and gallery added. The classical pillars constructed at this time failed to match the pillars on the north aisle built some 400 years earlier, due to the need to raise them on brick pediments level with the top of the pew-boxes. At this time the first organ was installed in the west gallery.
In 1789, by Act of Parliament, the Chapel of St Giles became the Parish Church of Pontefract when a charter was granted by King George III. In 1795 more additions to the building took place the most significant being the construction of the present classical-styled tower.
During the Victorian period (1825), the main entrance was moved from the middle of the south aisle to its present location near the west end and a vestibule created. Major alterations in 1868 to lower the Chancel roof to the same level as that over the nave necessitated Divine Service to be held, temporarily, under license in the Town Hall. In the same year the pew-boxes were removed and replaced by the present deal pews and the Sanctuary was completely rebuilt by the lay Proprietor, the Earl of Harewood. In 1882 plaster from Georgian times taken from the ceiling of the Nave revealed the previous wooden ceiling, which was then repaired and preserved. In 1895 the present organ was installed and most of the stained glass windows date from this period. In 1902, the font was moved from the east end of the south aisle to its present location.
For several years St Giles served as the garrison church for the soldiers quartered at Pontefract Barracks. When compulsory church parades were abolished the galleries over the north and south aisles were no longer needed and in 1948 were removed thus allowing much more light into the building.
The Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament at the south east corner of the church was created during the 1960’s and remained until the major internal alterations took place in 2012. Major restoration works to strengthen the structure of the tower were undertaken in the 1990’s and the church roof was completely refurbished in 2000 in readiness for the major internal alterations throughout the whole of the building which eventually took place during 2011 – 2013.
The historical developments and structural changes to the church building were made to satisfy the increasing demands for accommodation and styles of worship. Consequently, although the church has a long and interesting history, the architecture is both varied and undistinguished.
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